This week for the third time, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced that the Philadelphia School District has pushed back its reopening date. As of now, 9,000 prekindergarten through second-grade students — and their teachers — will return to in-person classrooms March 1, nearly a full year after the district initially closed schools over concerns about spread of the coronavirus.
The plan for how to come back safely has been hotly debated and includes many stakeholders with a wide range of views on how to proceed and what’s the safest next step, including a contentious dispute between Hite and the teachers’ union that has required third-party mediators.
Philadelphia is not alone in this struggle. Cities across the country are facing similar battles over when and how to return to school safely, especially following last week’s updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which some advocates for in-person learning consider to be too stringent.
The Inquirer Opinion section reached out to educational stakeholders in Philadelphia — parents, students, teachers, administrators, custodial workers, and elected officials — to ask: What does a safe return to Philly public schools look like to you?
Interviews by Erica Palan, Abraham Gutman, Elena Gooray, and Sandra Shea. Quotes have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
‘I’ve never experienced a safe Philly public school.’
Zion Brooks is a junior at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber and a member of the Philly Student Union’s Youth Leadership Team.
Honestly, it’s hard to imagine what a safe Philadelphia School District school looks like because I’ve never experienced one firsthand. We’ve never had soap in the bathroom. We need to wash our hands. It’s a highly infectious virus. I can’t imagine a school where it’s 100% safe.
I do want to go back to school. I don’t feel like I’m going to be fully equipped academically to graduate and go to college. I don’t feel like online learning is for me. I don’t feel like I’m on a good level to graduate either. Online it’s hard to communicate with my peers. We can’t always make the same time for projects. We are in a global pandemic right now. There’s a lot going on.
I would ask [our civic leaders] to put real thought and effort into the reopening plan. Don’t rush it. Spend time. Make it a comfortable place that you would want to send your kids to. I don’t feel like they did that before the pandemic, they aren’t doing it now. They don’t put care into the conditions they are putting us in. Before they send people to school, the option to get a vaccine should be available to everybody that’s going back. There shouldn’t be a question of who deserves it. We all deserve to be safe and have that option.
‘It’s about not having trust in the School District.’
Liza Dolmetsch is an art teacher at Clara Barton Elementary School.
Ventilation is still a huge issue. [The district gave us] $20 janky fans as a ventilation system in February. But a big part of this that I don’t know if folks really understand is that it’s about not having trust in the School District. They have not acted in good faith.
It’s not just about the ventilation system or the PPE. It’s trust but verify — because historically the district has not done that. When Hite says, “We’re going to be checking the temperature,” because there’s fans and we’re worried about our kids being in really cold temperatures ... well, we know that’s not true, because we’ve already been teaching in buildings that had rooms that were freezing. I talked to a teacher last week who said half of her building hasn’t had heat for years. In a perfect world, we would address the systemic underfunding of our schools. We need ventilation. We need appropriate PPE. We need technology supports. We need vaccinations. And we need case rates to be in a safe place.
‘It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.’
William R. Hite Jr., Ed.D., is superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.
The effect of closing schools due to the pandemic has been especially damaging in Philadelphia’s poorer communities. Research shows that children of color have suffered the most, falling behind academically and risking their futures in the process.
We all agree — families, teachers, the School District, and our elected officials — on the importance of reopening public schools. The dispute has centered on how to do so safely. These are legitimate concerns, and the district needs to address them. So, I want to make clear that we at the district continue our work with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) to facilitate the safe return of teachers and students through multiple layers of safety that includes rapid testing, vaccinations, contact tracing, and a $250 million investment in building safety. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, so let’s find common ground on building safety.
We seek the return of 9,000 pre-K through second-grade students for two days a week at approximately 150 school buildings. The conditions of these buildings vary, often depending on their age, and the district believes that all are safe for reopening. We invite returning families to come to school and see for yourselves the work that has been done to ensure the safety of your children.
‘I am fearful of what education will look like for Black and brown students in Philadelphia.’
Raymond Fields is founding principal of Mastery Prep Elementary.
I lost my mother to the coronavirus on Jan. 31. To me it is a very scary and real-to-life situation. I also believe it’s something that, if we put in safety measures, can be controlled. I am fearful of what education will look like for Black and brown students in the city of Philadelphia years out based upon this pandemic. We’re already seeing students with significant reading loss, not getting the social-emotional needs [met as they deserve]. They’re not getting socialized to school and to working alongside their peers.
We [at Mastery] are in a blessed place. We have enough spacing to accommodate our students. We have enough staffing and resources, PPE, so I’m not really that perplexed or concerned about it. But I’ve also been in situations where those resources weren’t plentiful. This is really a story of the haves and have-nots.
One thing Mastery is doing is extending free co-pays for therapy until the end of the [calendar] year. I’m asking myself as a school leader: What does self-care look like for teachers and admin? [My mom’s] funeral was last Friday, and I am still attending to this. So I’m really asking myself: What does it look like to attend to the emotional well-being of the team that I’m leading?
‘The lives of my students matter.’
Cristina Gutierrez teaches kindergarten at Lewis Elkin Elementary School. She’s been with the School District for 20 years and is on the steering committee of the Working Educators Caucus.
It’s not that we don’t want to go. Believe me, I am suffering every day trying to teach. It breaks my heart that I have a classroom of children who are not potentially getting what they need. It gives me anxiety to think I could go back to school and infect a child — who might not get sick themselves but could [spread the illness to] a caretaker, who might be a grandparent.
The School District has a history of not really being honest when it comes to building conditions. We need something that can prove to us that they took the necessary precautions. We need tests conducted by a third party and to have some sort of system that really delineates the condition of each room. I’m dying to ask [Mayor Kenney and Dr. Hite]: If they are so confident, go bring your desk and do your job in one of our schools. In North Philadelphia. In my neighborhood. Prove to me that it’s fine. There are some schools that have been left in the dark and are in awful conditions. Experience what we experience and maybe then you can understand where we’re coming from. The lives of my students matter.
It’s sad that our kids are missing out.
Patrick Troy is an attorney living in Bella Vista and parent of a first grader at Nebinger Elementary School.
We were prepared to [send our child back to in-person school] in November, when it was first an option. I understand that there was a lot more concern around that time about doing it. But in light of the vaccines, my preference would be that they would take steps to get teachers and staff members of the school vaccinated as soon as possible because they’re an integral part of what we can do to start moving into a normal lifestyle and giving parents the relief they need.
We really don’t get a lot of direct communications [from the School District itself]. It sort of filters its way down to us. I feel like they’re doing the best they can, but it seems they were taking steps that weren’t involving everyone in the process, and just making decisions on how things would happen and expecting everyone to go along. Our teachers are really doing a tremendous job.
What I want to do is try to balance the health and safety of everybody who’s involved, from school staff and teachers to my son and our very limited circle of interactions. We weighed all that together with the fact that there are some great benefits that my son is missing out on by not having direct interactions with his teacher. We weighed that risk with what we felt was happening with the schools and felt that it was reasonable to try out for two days a week.
There are certain days when I hear my son talk to his friends online during the school day, and I think, “It’s sad that you are missing out on those things in your life.”
‘This can’t just be on the backs of the custodial department.’
Ernie Bennett is Philadelphia School District leader at 32BJ SEIU, a property service workers’ union.
I feel pretty good about [reopening]. Children — if they’re taught the right thing, they will do the right thing. But we have to set the example. What I would like to see from the district leaders’ standpoint is everyone takes seriously the responsibility that we all are watching over each other and over these kids in a collaborative effort to do whatever is required: social distancing, wiping down desks, making sure our children have what they need.
This can’t just be on the backs of the custodial department. I would like to see consistent contact tracing and testing for all employees who work in the buildings. For people coming in and out of the buildings, accountability for wearing masks and practicing social distancing. And transparency from the time we open these buildings to the time we end at night, for us to constantly communicate.
I’d like people to understand that we take what we do very seriously and we’re trying to do everything we can so when school does open up, they’ll see a whole different method of cleaning to make sure these buildings are safe for children to learn in and teachers to teach in.
[Our] members come into work every day committed and dedicated to do what they need to do to sanitize the building, to do all that is required under CDC guidelines to make people comfortable when they come to work and defeat this pandemic. [These workers] travel on the bus to get to these locations, back and forth. [That] commitment is a testimony to us being on the front line with no other options but to come to work because you can’t remotely clean buildings from home.
‘Acknowledge the damage that decades of chronic underfunding has done.’
Kendra Brooks is an at-large member of City Council.
For students to return to schools safely, we need buy-in from all parties. We need caregivers, teachers, students, and paraprofessionals all on board, and the district needs to foster open dialogue with these community members.
“Our school communities deserve reparations for years of toxic learning conditions.”
We need to acknowledge the damage that decades of school privatization and chronic underfunding has done — not just to our school buildings but to the relationship between families and district leadership. Our school communities deserve reparations for the years of toxic learning conditions, inadequate staffing, and sudden school closures they have endured.
What does this look like? Listening to community members. Addressing their concerns. Investing in scientifically backed solutions that make everyone feel safe. And pursuing structural changes that address the dire funding challenges our schools are facing. Reopening school buildings must be the first step in repairing the harm that has been done and restoring trust. Anything less is insult on top of injury.
‘I don’t see how we’re going to be able to social distance.’
Aden Gonzales is a senior at Masterman High School and a member of the Philly Student Union. She is the founder and president of the Bullhorn, Philly’s student newspaper.
I wouldn’t feel comfortable going back to school unless I was vaccinated and everyone in my family was vaccinated and everyone I would be interacting with at school was vaccinated.
Also, I would need to see a really clear plan that my school was going to implement social distancing practices. I think about waiting in line for the metal detector. You couldn’t even get through the door sometimes, you’d have to wait outside. I don’t see how we’re going to be able to social distance and do that.
All my classrooms already had crazy climate control issues. You’d have to wear a tank top and sweater to school. One room would be freezing and you’d have to put on the sweater and then other rooms were so warm you had to wear the tank top. We couldn’t fix that before the pandemic, so I don’t know how we’re gonna have ventilation and safe airflow now.
There were hand sanitizer stations throughout the school, but no one ever used them before, like, two days before school shut down because they were always empty.
‘Is this going to be a good learning environment?”
Ruth Uselton is a working parent of two elementary-age children in the School District.
We have two kids who are in elementary school, one of them would be impacted by the early reopening. We have been very on-the-fence throughout the whole pandemic about what the best option is, what the best choice is. One of the biggest challenges has just been not enough information to really make informed decisions.
We want to make sure that our kids are safe, our teachers are safe, the staff is safe. That’s priority number one. But also, is this going to be a good learning environment? That’s priority number two. Are our kids going to be better off by being in a classroom? That’s my biggest issue with the current plan. It sounds like a glorified learning center, which is fine, but it shouldn’t be presented to us as in-school learning. The kids are just going to be sitting [in the classrooms] on screens.
To me, that doesn’t sound like a good learning environment — on top of the safety issues. I know teachers in particular have been very concerned about air quality in the Philadelphia School District. If teachers are frightened, I don’t feel comfortable putting them in that environment.
I am not completely opposed to reopening. I just haven’t heard what sounds like a feasible plan from both a safety perspective and a learning perspective, I haven’t heard that yet from the Philadelphia School District.